Through the Lens
Award-winning photographer Gerard H. Gaskin captures a then-and-now portrait of the AIDS pandemic
by Alina Oswald
While many may not recognize his name, photographer Gerard H. Gaskin has become a household name within the ballroom scene, which is an often-underground subgroup of the LGBTQ community. Born in Trinidad, Gaskin came to New York City at the age of eight. In 1993, he met someone who turned out to be Whitney Houston’s makeup artist, and who introduced the up-and-coming photographer to the ballroom community. At the time, Gaskin was ready to graduate from Hunter College, where he was studying photography, and he decided that photographing balls would make a good subject for his graduation thesis. Yet, right after graduation, he did not pursue the subject any further. Instead, he spent the end of 1994 and most part of 1995 in his native Trinidad. His in-depth work capturing the ballroom scene started only after his return to the States.
To this day, Gaskin still likes many aspects of photographing balls, he tells me over the phone. The most poignant, maybe, is that balls create “a space where people would come [and] be judged by their peers,” he says, “where they [can] be open enough to play out how they define their own sexual ideas, because I think there are moments when we can be very uptight about sexuality. And here, in America, being uptight about sexuality is a huge deal, [especially among those who are more] religious.”
To Gaskin, balls provided a kind of access that no one else but a photographer would desire. That and making groundbreaking images, while documenting the ballroom scene, allowed him to develop friendships within the community, friendships that, in turn, gave him even more behind-the-scenes access to the balls. “I think it was all those parts that kept me doing it,” Gaskin comments. “I love the energy of the [ballroom] space. I just kept on being a part of it.”
His latest book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene, published by Duke University Press, captures his twenty years of documenting the ballroom community in color, as well as in black-and-white. “Thirty percent of the pictures in black-and-white are of those who have passed away, most of them from HIV,” Gaskin explains, recalling the names of those gone too soon—Gerald LaBeija, who, in the photograph, has a little hat with a little long feather in it; Danielle Revlon, who’s in a cab with a mink coat on; Mystery Dior, with a hat on his head; the person on the back cover of the book.
“It’s a huge number of people.” After a short pause, he continues, “I remember these three people [who] passed away within six months, in 1999. That’s the pain….[I got] to the point that I didn’t want to go to balls anymore. Octavia San Laurent, Angie Xtravaganza…I can stand here and blurt out names, names that [only] ballroom people might know. [There’s] a tiny hole created by losing people who allowed me into their lives, to hopefully document, and create a project that ultimately is this book. [So, in Legendary] I’m trying to give voice to these people who have passed, and to give [the ballroom] community a space and a voice. I think this is one message that’s really important.”
While Gaskin believes that it is important to pay homage to those lost to HIV/AIDS, he also uses his photographs to inform about HIV/AIDS; hence his color images, like the one of an individual holding condoms and HIV-prevention literature. “That was my little take on making sure that there was [an HIV] component [in my book,] a subtle reminder more than anything else, [so that] my viewers wouldn’t think that [HIV] doesn’t exist,” Gaskin explains.
The photographer believes that the message needs to be subtle to protect the ballroom community from outsiders who might think that everybody in the ballroom community dies of AIDS-related causes or has an AIDS-defining illness, “because the outside world judges the ballroom scene in a way,” he comments. “It’s important [that the message is] subtle, when [bringing] up [these kinds of] subjects in the ballroom scene. Like I have an image in my book, a portrait of someone who I think has done too much surgery. She has a sad look on her face….It’s the undertone. Especially the femme queens, they go and get breast implants, and have all these backroom doctors, who are not really doctors, pump silicone into their bodies, and hormones that are not always up to code.”
These subtle messages are present in Gaskin’s images, part of a real conversation that the photographer tries to have with his audience, so that the world would better understand the ballroom community. Today, he doesn’t photograph balls as much as he used to, but they have remained his first love, his “first real hardcore project that I’ve worked on,” he says, “a set of pictures that I became, in some ways, famous for.”
Using his camera to document life, in general, is part of who he is, because he grew up with documentary photography. When he was starting out, at the age of eighteen or nineteen, his idols were French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered the father of photojournalism, and Robert Frank, a Swiss photographer now living in Nova Scotia.
Today, Gaskin uses his camera to document many aspects of life, photographing for The New York Times, Metrosource, and Out Magazine, among others, and covering various campaigns for ad agencies. Campaigns such as HIV Stops With Me, which runs in New York, Virginia, California, and Alaska, and which he did for Better World Advertising. Gaskin explains that, “[Better World Advertising] go out and ask organizations to find people for them, [and then] turn these people, basically, into spokespeople [to] tell their HIV stories, so that the public [would] be informed.”
Sometimes the spokespeople share their stories when in front of Gaskin’s camera. “When I would photograph them, they would talk to me,” he reiterates. “I remember we had a long conversation about the regimens, the amount of pills that they take, and stuff like that. [Some] people got infected recently, but some were infected years ago.”
Having had the ability to capture the pandemic through the lenses of then and now, Gaskin contemplates on the ongoing transformation the “AIDS image” has gone through, over the years. “The thing that has changed, in a very good way, [is that] it kind of walked away from the idea that this is a gay disease,” he explains. “When I first started [photographing] campaigns, there were mainly gay men that I would photograph. And now it’s women. I remember two or three years ago I [photographed] these people in Virginia, and this country boy, he was on the down low. These pictures are much more different now than [the ones from] ten years ago, when I started working on these projects. More different [groups of] people are involved in the question around HIV [now]. And I’d say that it’s terrible that the majority of them are African Americans who are infected.”
As part of campaigns like HIV Stops With Me, people go public about their HIV status. In other cases, they disclose their status to selected individuals. Hence, the question of disclosure arises. “It’s almost the same question that I used to have with transsexuals,” Gaskin explains. “Sometimes they [wouldn’t] want to tell that they had a complete sex change. I had a really good friend who was transsexual. And I would say to her, you know, you’re a role model, and you kind of have to see yourself as a role model. I’m not here to tell you that you have to tell everybody, but there needs to be a certain openness about it, because it helps everyone else. It helps the young person who’s coming out. And if you are articulate, people will see you in a very different way, and I think these are the things that are very, very important.”
For Gaskin in particular, disclosure (at the right time, in the right way, to the right person) is like bringing the truth into the light. It’s what he’s been trying to do as a documentary image-maker.
As a photographer, Gaskin has won many awards-—for his covering the ballroom scene, for his book, and for his photography, in general. And yet, he’s uncomfortable talking about the subject.
“The funny thing is that they give me awards,” he says “and I’m like what do they give me awards for? Because for me awards are really, really nice, not to say that I’m not happy to get [them, but] I’m very shy about being this person in the spotlight. I want that my pictures talk for me, because the people who ultimately allowed me to photograph them deserve these awards more than I do.”
As a photographer, Gaskin is interested in stories about regular people, because, he says, “regular people don’t get enough credit. Hopefully, that’s what I’m trying to ultimately pull off, to give them a voice, and be part of their voice, because, hopefully, in the midst of it all, I’m saying something.”
To learn more about Gerard H. Gaskin, visit him online at www.gerardhgaskin.com.
Alina Oswald wrote about the ball community and HIV/AIDS awareness in the June 2014 issue.